Writings on the Walls: The Brethren’s Workshop

Brethrens Workshop

The Brethren’s Workshop, or Brick Shop, circa 1920’s. North Family, Mount Lebanon, New York. Photographer: William F. Winter. Source: Historic American Buildings Survey.

The buildings of the North Family are full of clues pointing to past uses by the Shakers, from slots in floors and ceilings for belts that once powered machinery, to the peg boards that still line the walls of many rooms. One of the most widespread and mysterious of clues at the site involves the wealth of writing, recording, and material remnants on the walls of the site’s oldest extant structure, the Brethren’s Workshop, built in 1829.

In 1985-6 Dr. Michael Coe of Yale University and Dr. Ernest Wiegand of Norwalk Community College led the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village Archaeological Project to document, inventory, and assess structures and items found at the North Family historic site. A segment of that project focused on “superficial and subsurface archaeological field investigations at several sites,” which included graffiti found in the Brethren’s Workshop. The report included a catalog of graffiti, with measured drawings, research, and condition reports.

In the summer of 2016, the “Brethren’s Workshop: Writing On the Walls” project was launched to fill in the narrative gaps surrounding the wall remnants through research and new photography. The result was a new graffiti catalog building upon the original, with narrative analysis detailing what these historic remnants tell us about the Brethren’s Workshop and the people who worked and / or lived there. Support for the project came from a Vision Grant from Humanities New York.

The Brethren’s Workshop, or “Brick Shop” as it was called by Shakers, was constructed in 1829, when the corner stone was laid on April 27. From that point through the North Family’s closure in 1947, the workshop was home to Shaker Brothers and Sisters, hired workers and their families, and has been host to carpenters, teenage trespassers, archaeologists, guided tour groups, and exhibitions.

In its earliest days, the Workshop was used as space to do laundry by Sisters, and by Brothers as the center of their broom-making, fruit-selling, and seed businesses, the latter of which eventually grew into a major operation with trade routes in every direction from New York City to the western frontier. Over time, the range of trades plied inside the Workshop expanded to include shoemaking, constructing coffins, cabinetry and other woodwork, printing, carpet beaters (also known as rug whips), poultry, and likely more beyond the recorded history.

Hand print in black ink

Hand print in black ink, found on the third floor’s printing shop room.

In the basement floors, coffins, eggs, fruits, and vegetables were stored, in particular a “nice apple cellar” recorded as built on November 5, 1891. This supported the apple-selling business, whose remnants appear in the basement’s northwest and east spaces. On the first floor, woodworking went on in the carpentry shop. The second floor was used for a variety of purposes, including making carpet beaters and brooms, but the primary work there was the seed business, and seeds were stored, counted, and packaged for sale there. Based on graffiti and interviews with a former hired man who resided in the workshop, chickens may have been kept on the second floor. Finally, the third floor contained the printing and shoemaking shops. Most of the graffiti and markings found in the workshop reflects this layout.

Brother Curtis White with a hired man in the kitchen garden

Brother Curtis White (left) with a hired man in the kitchen garden, circa 1930s. The workshop can be seen in the background.

Shakers were not alone in undertaking all of these different types of work. Especially following the Civil War, the Shakers experienced labor shortages due to loss of (primarily male) members and therefore employed large numbers of hired men, or “hirelings,” in various supplemental roles; in 1893, the North Family journal records 11 male and 31 female resident Shakers.

Hired men were housed both in the upper floors of the nearby Farm Deacon’s Shop, but also in the Brethren’s Workshop itself, including in some cases with their families; Ashly Pratt, a former hired man who was interviewed in 1986, described arriving around 1922, moving into the workshop and joining three other hired hands and families. He described cold, bare conditions, having only cold running water for washing, and a portable chemical toilet. Other hired men’s families included the Face family (one of whom, Elroy, would go on to become a Major League Baseball player and pioneer modern relief pitching), the Gallaghers, and the Griswolds. Also living in the workshop were visitors to the North Family.

Wallpaper remnants

Wallpaper remnants, found on the second floor.

One notable example of a visitor living temporarily with the Shakers is that of Peter Neagoe, a Romanian writer and artist who’d spent a portion of his younger years at the North Family, where he apparently designed marketing material for Shaker products. Later, he and his wife stayed in the workshop several summers intermittently from 1912 through the 1920s, and eventually purchased a home in New Lebanon. It is likely that it was the Neagoes who were responsible for the wallpaper found on the workshop’s second floor, as the Family journal records Neagoe making renovations preparatory for his wife’s arrival.

The story of the Brethren’s Workshop is of the many different people who called it home, Shaker and non-Shaker alike: their lives, their work, and their marks left at the North Family. The building housed generations of Shakers, and later non-Shakers, who worked together to make the North Family operate as an efficient and prosperous economic enterprise. The marks, sketches, designs, and recordings all tell a very clear story about its utilitarian use.

This month, members of the public are seeing the results of the project and exploring these remnants of the past up close and personal. A tour will occur on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at 3PM. You can register for the tour online here. Following both programs, the full report will be made available for download online.

 

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